Lying, Cheating and Plagiarism – From This American Life to Mom Blogs, It’s Everywhere

Saturday Night Fever

This week on the Blogging Angels podcast we tackled plagiarism – again.  Why? Because last week a twitstorm of epic proportions hit the mom blogging world when a mom blogger and Babble writer, Kristin Ruiz, was exposed as a plagiarist.  She had lifted entire posts from another mom blogger, Amy Storch who writes at Amalah, and passed them off as her own.  She was promptly fired from Babble, but the fury this unleashed on all sides was intense and got quite personal.  And her defense was that she was only 27 years-old.

Plagiarism isn’t murky.  It’s stealing.  I spent a great deal of time this year when my daughters entered 4th Grade and began their first research projects teaching them the difference between copying text word for work and taking notes for research that will then become your own thoughts and support your original thesis.  When so many images and texts pop up with just a Google search and “copy and paste” is as simple as 2 clicks on the keyboard it can be easy to remember that this is stealing.  You may get all the content you want for “free” but ownership does not transfer to you the reader.  If 9 nine year-olds can understand that concept then grown women, and men, should have no problem either.

But mom bloggers aren’t the only ones suffering from lying.  The uncovering of Mike Daisey‘s Apple story, which aired on This American Life, as an exaggerated tale led to a retraction and endless media coverage.  Ironically though, that story resulted in many real investigations of conditions at the plants where Apple and many other electronic companies manufacture their products.  It’s all pretty complicated.  This idea of “creative” non-fiction writers is nothing new.  And Mike Daisey is defending himself as a “performer” not a journalist.  In other words, it was a piece of theater, not the New York Times (hello, Jayson Blair.)

Where does artistic license end and lying begin?  For some that line is clear – juicing up a bit of a story to make it more interesting and engaging, versus making up facts that corrupt the entire validity of a story.  For others, obviously, there is no difference – it’s all one big story and the embellished means are justified by the powerful end.  From Stephen Fry to John D’Agata this non-fiction fiction has been discussed.  Even the famous New York Magazine article, Tribal Rights of Saturday Night, that spawned the movie Saturday Night Fever, was exposed as being almost entirely made up.  Tony Manero, main character played by John Travolta in the film, never really existed.  It gives me pause every time I read a great long form piece of non-fiction journalism.

I wonder if there should be a new category – the non-fictionish essay.  It’s the story the way we wished it had happened, just don’t use it in a court of law or call yourself a journalist.  Or a blogger either for that matter.

When it’s OK to Work For Free (Really!)

There have a been a flurry of articles in the mom blogging space over the past year about mom bloggers who work for free and how you should never, ever do it.  I wrote one myself for Mom Blog Magazine.  You’ve heard it before: You cheapen everybody’s work; you make it harder for anyone to be taken seriously and get paid; you are a chump building someone else’s business without getting anything in return.  And, all of that is true – sometimes.  One of the things that bothers me about this dogmatic approach to the topic of being paid is that often it is hurled by people I know have worked – and continue to work – for free in some instances.  The other thing is, it’s not so clear-cut.  I’ve written previously about why you shouldn’t work for free – but taking stock of my year and really my last four years since I started blogging – I think it’s important to talk about when it’s okay to accept work that doesn’t come with cash compensation.

  1. YOU ARE NEW TO BLOGGING – It’s a big, wide blogosphere out there and building readership and traffic is daunting.  Joining a blog community where you are posting with a group of other women can give you an automatic group of colleagues and support.  You will not drive a ton of traffic from these sites – no matter what they say to the contrary – but you will start to feel like you belong, meet other bloggers and build links back to your site.  I started out writing for Silicon Valley Mom’s NYC Mom Blog site and then for the Yahoo! Motherboard and those two communities gave me the connections and friendships that are far and away the most valuable I have today – both personally and professionally.  I don’t regret writing for them for free for a moment.
  2. YOU WANT TO BUILD YOUR EXPERT REPUTATION:  There are sites that can provide a much bigger soapbox for your views than your blog.  Again, they will not throw you tons of traffic, so don’t fall for that, but they can give you a platform and a legitimacy that your blog alone will not.  When the Washington Post asked to re-post an education piece I had written I did not hesitate to say yes.  It enhanced my standing as an education writer and advocate and gave me a great byline to point to when applying to paying gigs in the field.  As long as you own your content and you are seeing the benefit then you should consider it.
  3. YOU WILL GET EXCLUSIVE ACCESS TO EVENTS OR INTERVIEWS: Let’s face it, you are just one of many bloggers trying to get press passes, invites and other access to brands and events.  If you don’t have the clout (or Klout) to obtain those on your own then having the byline and credentials from a much larger site can help.  I have attended many conferences, expos and events thanks to my affiliation with Yahoo! Motherboard.  It’s a name those outside of the blogging world understand.  To me, that was valuable.

Like I said in the beginning, nothing is black and white.  You have to go with your gut and you have to feel like what you are contributing is being respected and acknowledged accordingly – cash or otherwise.  You also have to be realistic about your worth.  Only you know what is right for you.  What do you think?  Would you or do you work for free?

Blogging is Hard.

Really it is.  For the past two weeks my real life has kicked my ass and I’ve watched as day after day my computer has functioned as a giant Twitter stream and email board.  My writing, my real honest to goodness writing has taken a backseat to the whirlwind that swept through the month of September.  It’s not that I haven’t been going to fabulous events or seeing friends or thankfully recording podcasts it’s just that my writing groove is hopelessly out of sync.

For a writer this state of non-writing is like being in a haze.  I know my days are packed with important tasks, meetings and obligations but without real focused writing time I tend to feel untethered.  What I’ve realized is that this new school year requires an entirely new schedule not just for my daughters but for me too.  What I’ve also come to realize is that as I’ve piled on new projects and responsibilities I haven’t given up or delegated anything old so by default it’s my writing that has suffered.  This is not OK.

I know I’m not alone in my stack of posts in draft mode, the events I attended that I still haven’t written about and the running mental conversations babbling through my brain at all times that I’m sure I will write down just as soon as I can.  This is why blogging is hard.  Maybe the hardest kind of writing I’ve ever done.  Once you are established there is an expectation – from loyal readers and subscribers, from PR people who invited you to events and from your own nagging inner voice – that you must produce on a regular basis.  I suppose for people who blog their everyday life or who can shoot out a quick 150 words this is no biggie.  But for me, a girl who constantly edits, rewrites, is never happy with the final product and instantly wants to make another change the moment I hit “publish” the act of blogging is constantly stressful.

When I wrote fiction and screenplays (a lifetime ago) there was a different kind of investment in my writing time.  There was a big picture I could feel my way through with an endpoint in mind.  I loved spending time in whatever world was being created on the page, following characters, crafting dialog – telling a story so far outside myself.  Having that final “THE END” was both mystifying and exhilarating.  In contrast,  a blog has no end.   Every post leads to another.  The characters?  They are real.  And the world?  Well it’s not terribly escapist for me the writer.

So while I love my blog – and I really do – I have realized that every once in while I need a break:  A blog-cation.  As from any hiatus I have to hope I come back recharged and with a new perspective in the blogosphere.   Or maybe I need a Twitter-cation instead – ’cause Twitter?  That’s disgustingly easy.

Stop Copying Me! Plagiarism, Scraping & Other Unwanted Forms of Flattery

Yes, in this week’s Blogging Angels podcast I actually admit to cheating in High School by handing in my boyfriend’s report on Crime and Punishment the year after he had handed in the very same paper.  In my defense I had read the book in 9th grade and so in a little sociology experiment decided to see if my teacher truly did favor the boys over the girls by handing in the paper that had earned my boyfriend a 100%.   I got a 94%.  I proved my hypothesis!  And felt justified as only a jaded teenager can.  (but I’ll be writing more about my lame high school later this week …)    Why did this come up in this week’s podcast?  Because we are dishing the dirt on plagiarism on the web, blog stealing and other forms of copying that plague bloggers in this vast virtual world.  How can you protect yourself?  What is the value of online writing?  And is Dr. Roehmer still allowed to teach AP English?  OK, that last one is really just my mind bending question.

Tune in to get the answers on the Blogging Angels or listen up on itunes.  Plus check out who got golden halos this week and the other links that can help keep your work safe.

How Does a Blogger Get Compensated? Let Us Count the Ways…

It’s the Blogging Angels second podcast and we’re talking about the one thing that gets bloggers all worked up – what qualifies as getting paid?  Do you work for stuff?  What do you owe a company that gives you product unsolicited?  Can you write an unbiased review when the product was given to you for free and is yours to keep?  If you’re “guest posting” for free on someone else’s site are you a sucker or are you building your brand?

Listen in to where the four of us fall in this debate and join in the conversation on our blog.  We’re also asking listeners for their sign off suggestions!  We need a way to sign off that will be as memorable as Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is” but with a dash of Charo’s “cuchi, cuchi.” (seriously, watch that Charo clip!)  Shouldn’t be too hard for all of you witty and funny readers and listeners out there!

Bookmark and Share

Greetings From Camp! I Wanna Go Home! or How to Rip Out Your Mother’s Heart in One Small Letter

My daughters left for sleep-away camp on Monday.  They come home on Sunday.  A short one week trial of sleep-away camp to see if they’d like it, to give them a gentle nudge towards independence.  (At least that’s the way my hard core camp husband sold it to me.)  Here’s the thing about sleep-away camp that I wasn’t prepared for – I wouldn’t speak to my kids for 6 days.  In my mind somehow I forgot this.  I’ve been away from them before but I’ve always called home to talk to them and hear a recap of their day.  Nope, that’s just not how things work at camp.  So every night my husband and I have pathetically waited for the pictures of camp to be posted on the photo site and then go through them with a fine tooth comb looking for a sign of our girls and more importantly to find some proof that they’re having fun.  A smile!  Arms around a group of girls!  Eating marshmallows!  All good signs.

Then today we came home to find two letters, one from each of them which must have been written on their first day of camp.  We read the first one:

All good right?

Then we opened the second one:

And our hearts fell to the ground.  And we laughed.  Thank goodness we have the pics of her smiling like crazy at camp or I’d really be worried.  Instead I think I’ll be proud of the fact that she has obviously mastered the art of Jewish Guilt. And my husband?  The one who went to summer camp for 7 weeks at the age of 7?  He is 100 times worse than I am and I think will be touring the Columbia University campus this fall to see how they can commute to college in 10 years without ever leaving home!